Wonderful Season: Episodes 1-2
Wonderful Season is the new KBS weekend family drama that began last weekend, and as noted, it’s a hit right out of the gates. It had a good lead-in with KBS’s previous ratings blockbuster King’s Family, but don’t expect anything like that show in this one (a great thing, by anyone’s measure)—Wonderful Season is thoughtful, nuanced, and heartwarming.
I was prompted to check out the drama because of the writer more than anything; Lee Kyung-hee’s most recent drama (Nice Guy) was an intense melo, but she’s quite capable of writing moving, warm stories (Will It Snow For Christmas, Thank You) and that’s what I wanted to see. Thankfully, that’s what we get here—I was happy to find myself easing right into this world with its complex characters and layered relationships.
Furthermore, while Wonderful Season may be a longer-running weekend series, it has the production values and feel of a higher-budget show, so it’s working a best-of-both-worlds scenario. The cinematography is on par with miniseries, and I suppose is the closest thing you could get to a “premium weekend drama”; the show lacks that live-shot soundstage feel that you get in many family and daily dramas. I’ll admit that as a result it’s a little jarring when the show does transfer to the soundstage for the indoor and neighborhood scenes because we’re seeing familiar settings through a different camera lens, but on the whole I really enjoy this aspect of the show. I’ll be curious to see how that holds up, and how the complex relationships build and grow.
SONG OF THE DAY
Sunwoo Jung-ah – “삐뚤어졌어” (It’s all twisted) [ Download ]
You know the saying “You can’t go home again”? That’s the sentiment weighing on the hero of our story, KANG DONG-SEOK (Lee Seo-jin), a Seoul prosecutor who is transferred to his hometown against his wishes. Reluctantly he packs up and heads back to Gyeongju, the city near the southeastern coast that he probably swore never to return to—he doesn’t say that in words, but it’s telling that he has not returned in fifteen years or kept in contact with his family.
Dong-seok grew up poor and owes his success to his sharp intelligence, having transformed into the epitome of the urban professional. Thus his return sparks a flurry of activity in his hometown as his sprawling family scrambles to welcome him, happy to brag about him to anyone and everyone. Dong-seok is the prodigal son returning home, only in a blaze of glory; the town is literally strewn with banners proclaiming his return.
However, the welcome is not universal: Dong-seok’s golden child status and his desire to keep his family at arm’s length translates into a strained, sometimes downright fraught dynamic with some members of his family. His mother and uncles are excited to have him back, but his siblings find their reactions mixed. Not to mention the first love he has left behind but seemingly not forgotten.
Dong-seok, his first love, his twin sister, his younger brother, his hyung
The Kang family is large and messy, with a pattern of twins in each generation. For this household bursting with loyalty, love, bitterness, and resentment all at once, the repressed emotions are joined together in an inextricable knot. There are a lot of characters to keep straight so I’ll introduce them as neatly as I can (to be fair, the drama makes a purposely inchoate introduction to the relationships, because they are meant to be complicated and confused).
Dong-seok’s childhood wasn’t impoverished in a starving-and-barefooted way, but his mother was a maid to the richest family in town and his absent father was (and still is) notorious for his womanizing ways. Add to that a mentally disabled twin sister, and this means that Dong-seok is both protective of and at times embarrassed by his family. It would appear that he channeled those feelings into a motivation to leave it all behind as soon as he could.
Dong-seok’s mother, twin uncles, “aunt,” grandfather
Rather than starting us off in Dong-seok’s youth, spending weeks of airtime in the past, then speeding us to the present, Wonderful Season drops us in the middle of these fractured relationships, letting us puzzle at the source of their conflict. Flashbacks are employed to feed us tidbits and round out our understanding of the past, but I like the way the show doles out its information in pieces, letting us wonder at the in-between steps for a while.
It takes thoughtful characterization to make this work, because even when things are purposely withheld from us, they do still have to operate on internal logic, even if we can’t see the reasons yet. It makes me curious to know what happened with whom, where things went wrong, what the blood relationships actually are, and how people honestly feel about each other beyond what they say they feel.
In the 1998 timeline, teenage Dong-seok is a smart, reserved, sometimes cold high school student, and even at this age he has a rather above-it-all air. For instance, when CHA HAE-WON (played in the future by Kim Hee-sun) confesses her crush on him in a letter, he tells her he didn’t read it because it wasn’t worth reading. His outward coldness does give way when Hae-won does need help so he isn’t an asshole to the bone, but let’s just say he was never going to the be the warm and fuzzy type.
Hae-won adores Dong-seok and has been dangling after him for pretty much her whole youth. She’s bubbly and irrepressible, and perhaps Dong-seok isn’t really as indifferent as he seems, but she has one fatal flaw: She’s the daughter to the richest family in town—in a town where there aren’t any other rich people. Hae-won’s mother is absolutely the worst, and regularly yells at Dong-seok’s mother and sister. The day that Dong-seok finally shows a tiny bit of consideration for Hae-won, they both happen to hear her mother berating his, screaming, “How dare your retarded daughter dirty my precious daughter’s bed by lying on it?”
That sister—Dong-seok’s twin noona (by two minutes) DONG-OK—is as sweet and harmless as they come, and he hates to see her debased. On the other hand, he can’t do anything for his powerless family, and you get the sense that he has dealt with all his rage by suppressing it and quietly enduring.
One day poor noona Dong-ok is accused by Hae-won’s horrible mother of stealing her jewelry, and dragged to the police station. This is where another rift begins, because the twins’ kid brother DONG-HEE (later played by Taecyeon) is an incorrigible hothead, and despite the fact that he’s probably all of ten years old, he’s fired up in defense of his noona.
So when his adored hyung arrives to take care of the situation, Dong-hee feels that all will be set to rights… only to have Dong-seok reach his limit and yell at their sister instead of defending her. He demands to know if noona stole that jewelry, and when she clams up out of fear and cowers into their mother’s side, it only makes him lash out more in frustration. When all is said and done, little bro Dong-hee looks at his hyung through disillusioned eyes, all respect dashed.
That tension spills over into their adult reunion, when both brothers have taken completely disparate paths. Dong-hee has fallen prey to his fatal flaw, his uncontrollable temper: At his relatively young age he has already been kicked out of school, locked up a few times for fighting, had a failed marriage, and fathered a set of twins who believe him to be their brother (more on that in a bit).
So you can imagine the mood when Dong-seok’s homecoming happens to coincide exactly with Dong-hee’s release from jail, when the whole family is cooking up a feast and wearing their nice clothes for one son and paying little mind about the other.
Dong-hee isn’t completely forgotten, though he doesn’t show gratitude for the one person who does show up to his release—it’s his “aunt,” really one of his father’s many discarded women who has become part of the Kang family. After being ripped off by Daddy Kang, she showed up at the family’s doorstep demanding recompense. Mom apologized and took her in, and now insists to everyone that the woman is their aunt.
It’s not clear whether Aunt is truly just fond of Dong-hee or if (as I think may be hinted) she may be his birth mother. For now we know that Dong-hee was left on the doorstep with a note that he’s Daddy Kang’s child, and Mom took him in and raised him as her own. Dong-hee found this out in childhood but pretends not to know the truth, and is, as far as I can see, a proper and filial son to Mom. It’s quite sweet, and I sense it’s another source of friction between the brothers—that the biological child is the lousy son, and the adopted one the attentive one.
Lousy son though he may be, Dong-seok’s arrival is met with anticipation by Mom (played with quiet forbearance by Yoon Yeo-jung), albeit mixed with anxiety. Her reaction, I think, is the most poignant of everyone’s (although there’s a lot of bittersweetness to go around), as she stoically goes about her day while everyone else is in a flurry of activity for the homecoming.
For instance, noona Dong-ok is so excited to see her twin that she takes up watch by the street for his approach, even though it’s likely her brother won’t even recognize her. Mom has to urge her back into the house to wait, and I love the above image even as it makes my heart pang—even as she’s telling Dong-ok that waiting outside is pointless, she’s unable to stop casting a look around for Dong-seok. Just in case.
And then to make it hurt just a little more, Dong-ok spends the day getting pretty for the reunion, only to bury herself under the covers at the last minute. She’s afraid her smart, fancy brother will be ashamed of her and can’t bear to face him. And when he finally does arrive home, Mom talks to him while studiously avoiding meeting his eyes, as though scared of what she’ll see in them.
So early on, we start to see the fissures that will only grow now that Dong-seok is actually back. Even the people who are thrilled to see him are harboring resentments and sorrows, which the long absence has only encouraged to fester.
For instance, his grandfather fusses endlessly about wearing the right cologne to meet his grandson, all nervous anticipation, only when he actually sees him the first thing he does is throw a pillow at his face and yell at him for taking so long to come back. It’s not anger talking but fear, as Grandpa cries that he was deathly afraid that Dong-seok wouldn’t return before he died.
To be fair it’s not single-handedly Dong-seok’s fault, nor is he a villain or even anti-hero. We see that he cares, and he feels a combination of guilt and sadness when he’s confronted with these truths. It’s just that he reacted to the initial pressures by running away and ignoring the issues in the hopes that going out of sight would put it from his mind, and now he has fifteen years’ worth of built-up hurts and misunderstandings to contend with.
His other brother, DONG-TAK (Ryu Seung-soo), receives him cheerfully and seems the most easy-going of the siblings, but a little while later his facade breaks a bit, too. A movie extra who moved back from Seoul after his divorce, Dong-tak is a generally upbeat guy with a bit of bluster in him. However, his precocious son wonders why when Dad moved down from Seoul everybody seemed ashamed of him, and when Uncle Dong-seok moves down they’re throwing him parties. Dong-tak points out the differences in their situations, and his son gives him a sweet and heartbreaking pat on the head in consolation.
So yes, it would be a bit of an understatement to say that Dong-seok left behind some cracked relationships when he went up to Seoul. I wonder if he felt he could run forever, or that he’d never have to confront his family if he insisted on living on the other side of the country. And the show does a pretty good job thus far of not making Dong-seok despicable for his neglect of his family; if anything, it seems like he’s floundering for the right way to act rather than trying to deliberately hurt. He may be in over his head emotionally, being so repressed and stoic—a trait he shares with his mother, which may make their reconciliation the toughest of all, I suspect.
And that’s leaving out the biggest question mark of all—first love Hae-won. Once the princess of the city, her family has since been ruined and now she’s just another plebeian, working hard to support her family. It’s a reversal that is satisfying to some of the Kangs who feel this is karmic payback, but Dong-seok doesn’t seem too thrilled to see her fortunes so drastically altered.
As teenagers, he had shocked her by changing his mind and asking her to date after all, which she had jumped to accept, having wanted nothing else. And when her mother locks her in her room and prevents her from meeting Dong-seok, she sneaks outside and waits in the cold all night just to apologize for missing the date. With the tension between their families escalating and Mom determined to keep them apart, Dong-seok suggests that they run away to be together without their interfering families, and she agrees immediately.
I don’t think it’s a huge spoiler to give away what’s in the character descriptions, but this hasn’t been introduced in the drama proper yet, so take it as you will: We will see that Dong-seok made that proposition intending revenge on Hae-won’s mother, in the wake of her abuse of his mother and sister. Yet I don’t think he was so cold as to hate Hae-won all along, and in the 2014 scenes there’s definitely something in the way he regards her. Add this to another of the drama’s question marks that we’ll have to unravel with time.
That gives us the nuts and bolts of the drama, which as you can see are largely character-driven. There are lots of meaty conflicts built into this setup, and not only as Dong-seok versus Everyone; there’s plenty of conflict to go around between the supporting characters too. Acting-wise we’re dealing with mostly capable veterans who can make the most out of solid material, and I have a feeling Lee Seo-jin is going to work the hell out of this character. He imbues his restraint with intensity, giving him depth, and his world-weary resignation works so well with Dong-seok’s current situation in life.
Kim Hee-sun is a little iffier, especially since she’s adopting an accent to play Hae-won, and she’s not as perfectly in tune with the saturi as, say, the native Busan folks in Answer Me 1997. But this is a role that mixes her bubbliness with a layer of maturity and her character is easy to root for—down on her luck but proactive and assertive—so mostly I’m content with her in the role.
Taecyeon does feel a little in over his head, both acting- and accent-wise, and while his youth works with Dong-hee’s immaturity and impetuousness, I can’t help but feel that he’ll be buried by Lee Seo-jin’s gravitas. The directing helps smooth out the rough edges somewhat and I hope he’ll ease into the role; right now I see him clomping around violently and think he’s “acting angry” rather than being angry. But it’s a meaty role with lots of growth potential, so let’s hope he rises to the occasion.
An interesting note about Wonderful Season is that it does employ some of the makjang standards, but is pretty far from being a makjang drama. In fact, I’d say it’s poking fun at the genre a bit, with its matter-of-fact mentions of birth secrets and questionable parentage. For instance, Dong-hee is the father to twins, and given that he was probably barely an adult at the time, his mother ended up taking in the kids and calling them her own. It’s a little ridiculous considering the ages involved, but for now the kids believe it, and one wonders at what point they’ll get hip to the truth.
Here’s a case of a drama using a trope that often gets lumped into makjang territory without actually being that kind of show; birth secrets aren’t intrinsically makjang. They happen to be incorporated into those stories frequently because of the easy drama they provide, but they needn’t signal that quality on their own, and this drama’s a case of that.
In any case, the drama’s tone has me intrigued, its acting has me invested, and the writing is so far doing its job in keeping my curiosity piqued. I love seeing weekend family dramas expanding past their usual range to deliver something a little more introspective and layered, but doing so without ditching the warmth and intergenerational bonding that are at the heart of these shows. Since this is a 50-episode weekender, recaps will stop here (no time! Who’s hoarding all the time?!), but I’ll be coming back as a viewer.
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- Taecyeon up for writer Lee Kyung-hee’s next drama